Citizenfour begins in the dark, alone. Laura Poitras reads her first missive from Edward Snowden aloud over the image of a car driving through a tunnel, all wrapped in shadow save for two red taillights and a line of yellow lights above. The scene soon switches to that of a computer screen, encountering and then decoding the encrypted email. It captures the initial moment of contact for posterity, inevitably a large part of this film’s significance. Poitras was there in Hong Kong with Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, instrumental in the release of documents that shook the world in the summer of 2013. Citizenfour is destined to be a legendary primary source document, chronicling a breakthrough in 21st century information politics.
Yet there is also a thematic treatment of political character and identity that occupies the solitude of the unforgettable opening shot. Citizenfour is two films. At first glance it is the cinematic manifestation of the fight for privacy and freedom from surveillance that emerged itself in both Snowden’s whistleblowing and Greenwald’s journalism. Secondly, circling that tightly communicated message, is a portrait of what truth and openness do to risk takers in this brave new world of government eavesdropping and metadata collection. Poitras has made a personal film because there is no other option for this story. Her involvement changed her life, as it did the lives of her collaborators. The result is a masterful fusion of journalism and art.
As a political thriller, Citzenfour moves quickly and clearly. Poitras lays the groundwork with some dark comedy, featuring video of a court case in which the government is trying to defend its right to surveil the public. Their argument, essentially, is that if they spy on everyone then no individual has the right to sue. The judges raise their eyebrows, a laugh line for the audience. This oddly jovial mood is then demolished with desolate landscapes, images taken in Utah at the construction site of the NSA’s new data center. The overwhelming size of the location, the impending repository of all of the information in the world, is a forbidding and overwhelming thing.
But Poitras wastes little more time in getting to Hong Kong. Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald meet in a hotel, where they spend an entire week planning the release of the documents the NSA contractor has smuggled out of the United States. Much of the details are explained in this central act, though not everything. Citizenfour presents its revelations of complex systems over time. Moreover, the explanations of the NSA’s activities both at home and abroad are presented without filter. Poitras doesn’t relay this to the audience as an expert, but shows the experts informing first herself and then wider audiences after the initial explosion of information and debate.
It is both intellectual and horrific. These mostly mild-mannered people trapped in a high-class hotel room don’t unravel under the pressure, but their outlooks do become shaped by the act of journalism. It begins with paranoia. Cooped up in Hong Kong, Snowden cannot stop worrying. His concerns should likely be trusted, given all that he knows, but that doesn’t make it any less unsettling to watch him type under a blanket and freak out when the fire alarm goes off. He explains that VOIP phones, including the one next to the bed, can easily be tapped. He has a particularly frightening conversation with Greenwald on the subject of password security. If you don’t believe him, he begins to resemble a man in a tinfoil hat. If you do believe him, the film rapidly becomes a nightmare.
These suspicions end up panning out, to an extent. Snowden ends up in exile in Russia. Poitras decides it’s better for her to stay in Berlin, rather than deal with the increasingly frustrating detainment that happens every time she re-enters the U.S. Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow Airport for nine hours later that summer. Poitras chronicles all of this, catching the quiet moments attached to this state of exile, from Snowden obsessively combing his hair in Hong Kong to Miranda and Greenwald escaping the press into a quiet elevator as they reunite in Brazil after the London ordeal.
These people slowly begin to resemble a community. It includes William Binney, an analyst who resigned from the NSA in 2001 and now speaks against its surveillance operations. By the end of Citizenfour he has been called before the German Bundestag. There is also Jacob Appelbaum, an award-winning journalist and security expert. He begins the film educating Occupy Wall Street activists about metadata and privacy in what looks like little more than a basement and ends the film addressing the European Parliament. Greenwald, as well, takes the mission to the halls of power, appearing before a government committee in Brazil.
Before long, things begin to feel not entirely unlike a superhero movie. The last scene, in which Greenwald lets Snowden in on the arrival of a new whistleblower, is not that far in its giddy excitement from a Marvel post-credits sequence. Yet perhaps it would be more accurate to say that teams of comic book heroes are effectively inspiring because they tap into the same real-life themes as Citizenfour. This film is about how the subjects’ embrace of truth sets them apart, much more dramatically than the bite of a radioactive spider.
The most terrifying thing about Citizenfour is not what the NSA is doing but the fact that most Americans aren’t entirely surprised by it. Snowden brings this up himself, that his generation already takes this surveillance for granted. There is a constant, passive state of acceptance. By forcing himself to confront and then expose these abuses of civil liberties, Snowden is essentially waking himself up. He and the other advocates of transparency and privacy have chosen to stand up in the world, to not simply tell the truth but to live in it. Poitras’s film is the artistic representation of this altered existence, its anxieties, its setbacks and its moments of ecstatic success.
This review was originally published on October 22, 2014.